Lukashenko tries to make peace with Putin

  • 2002-08-22
  • Olga Nedbayeva

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko tried to make peace with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week in their first meeting since a bitter June quarrel over a mooted Russia-Belarus union.

Immediately on his arrival in Moscow, the autocratic and unpredictable Belarus leader dismissed a wave of Russian reports speculating that Putin has decided to distance himself from Lukashenko and bury the union idea for good.

"Vladimir Putin and I enjoy very warm relations and anyone who tries to break us apart will fail," he told reporters.

Lukashenko later told Putin in the Kremlin that opponents of the Russia-Belarus union were trying to trigger a feud between the two presidents.

"It is impossible to turn us against each other. We are both responsible people," Lukashenko said with a chuckle. "We must take up questions concerning our cooperation, on building a single home."

Putin for his part cautiously replied "that difficulties always exist" when two countries try to forge a new union.

"It is not surprising that this process is difficult," he said. "Nothing of the sort has ever been tried before."

Putin suggested that Belarus should either join Russia and adopt its constitution or back off and settle on a loose alliance similar to the European Union.

He also proposed that Belarus adopt the Russian ruble as its national currency in 2004 - an idea most economists view as far-fetched because the immense disparity between the two countries' economies.

Lukashenko's one-day visit comes with relations between Moscow and Minsk at an all-time low over the union project that was devised in 1997 but has advanced little since.

It was further clouded by a Belarus court decision last week to suspend the operational license of a Russian state-run pipeline operator that transports about a third of all gasoline and diesel refined in Russia to European markets.

The move came amid continuing efforts by Belarus authorities to nationalize much of the country's infrastructure.

Putin's pro-Western policies have been increasingly at odds with Lukashenko's Soviet-style leadership.

Tensions between the two leaders peaked in June with Lukashenko blasting Putin - Minsk's only ally in Europe - after the Russian president criticized him for allegedly trying to restore the Soviet Union.

Putin played down the significance of the Russia-Belarus union and cited opinion polls which showed that at least half of the Belarus population wanted their country to retain its sovereignty.

The authoritarian Belarus leader responded by accusing him of "insulting the Belarus people."

The rift came days after senior U.S. officials publicly pressed Putin to convince Lukashenko to become more democratic.

Many Russians believe Lukashenko is eyeing closer union with its richer neighbor as a way of rescuing Belarus from its dire economic position.

The proposed union would create a mechanism by which the two countries could devise joint foreign and economic policies while preserving each state's full sovereignty.